Most of us get behind the wheel to escape — if only for a hour or so — the countless complications of modern life.
If we’re lucky, we get off the grid for a few days, but sometimes just a few hours is enough to cleanse our minds and reenter the world with energy.
I spend as much time as possible off the grid in Oregon’s Outback — the millions of high-desert acres east of the Cascade Mountains. Most people think of Oregon as a land of mountains with dense fir and pine forests, and that’s mostly true — until you drive east of the Cascade Mountains.
Suddenly, Ponderosa pine forests give way to a rolling, rocky terrain of sagebrush, rabbitbrush and juniper. Much of this land is under federal ownership, and countless miles of rough dirt and gravel roads wind through this lonely land.
This landscape, where cell phone coverage is sparse at best, is always an adventure. I love to explore this world in my 2017 Toyota Tacoma 4X4. In fact, this is the reason I bought the truck five years ago.
This rugged vehicle refuses to break down, and it fears no weather. The truck isn’t rigged for steep, rocky, oil pan-destroying courses. This truck is for navigating roads in any weather — and getting me back to pavement after I steer it down washed-out, potholed roads that lead to remote trout streams, hot springs or photogenic wildlife or scenery.
I simply couldn’t explore this land with a conventional car — or even a 2-wheel-drive truck. There is nothing quick about exploring these roads. The goal is to get out there without ripping up the gear. Besides, I see a lot more out there when the truck is easing down a bumpy road at 10 mph.
Overlanding — a quietly growing movement in the car world where 4X4 owners get together and explore old rugged roads — has made this part of world more popular. In the distance, I spotted a brand-new Ford Bronco rolling over another road. You’ll see all kinds of 4X4 trucks out here — plus tricked-out Jeep Wranglers. No one seems to leave trash or make a lot of noise.
A few days ago, I spent a few hours off the grid. The Oregon desert was greening up during a sunny afternoon — even though snow was forecast for the next few days.
A loose herd of mule deer in winter range ghosted in and out of the sagebrush draws. Many stands of gray-green sagebrush showed where the deer had nibbled off the tender ends of new leaves. Some of the does looked like they were about ready to give birth to fawns.
Shed antlers littered the ground where the land furrowed into draws and ravines — or in the clumps of juniper trees.
A garter snake oozed through rocks as the road neared a desert river — one that is born in the Cascades but flows out into the arid land.
The truck slowly rocked from side to side as the tires slowly ground over a steep, rutted rise. Spooked rabbits darted through the brush when I opened the door to take photos.
I turned in a full circle, and I saw mountains, dark clouds, rolling sagebrush hills, bright sun and a long, dusty road that would soon turn into sticky gumbo when the storm rolled in.
The engine ticked like a metronome as it cooled. I felt clean and alive.
I got back in and turned the truck around. It was time to slowly roll on toward home.